Energy outlook for the third world starts to flicker

The second oil price ''shock,'' with prices up almost 90 percent since 1979, underlines the need to find new energy sources for the third world. It also coincides with sharp cuts in American aid and technical assistance caused by the Reagan administration's free-market development strategy.

One unfortunate result could be loss of momentum for the developing world - at just the time when American technology has done much to revolutionize peasant agriculture.

The 1970s saw a series of third-world gains. There was the rapid spread of scientific farming, declines in human fertility, a slowdown in the exodus from village to city, and the emergence of a few semi-industrialized nations in East Asia and Latin America.

Most developing countries adjusted to the 1973-74 shock of rising oil prices at a cost of inflation, more external debt, and slower growth. But the 1979-80 shock is hitting harder. And at the moment there seems to be an every-man-for-himself mood in the third world.

For example, India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has broken a 34-year tradition of relying on foreign aid ($3.4 billion this year) and India's domestic resources.

Instead, India is scrambling to borrow from everybody it can; it has approached international lending agencies for at least $8 billion to $9 billion.

Money, wherever it can be scraped up, tends to go for energy. Mrs. Gandhi plans to invest $5 billion in oil exploration for 1980-85. The Indians hope to nearly triple their modest domestic oil production to about 30 million tons by 1985, reducing crippling imports from 70 percent to 30 percent of the nation's consumption.

President Reagan has stressed that oil exploration should be done by American oil companies. Mrs. Gandhi's answer to that was to just buy out India's last remaining oil multinational, Burmah Shell.

Compared with Asia's other giant, China, India is energy poor. In 1980, China produced 635 million tons, in coal equivalent, of commercial energy, 70 percent from coal and 23 percent from oil. India hopes to reach 390 million tons next year, just 11 million tons of it from oil. India has just 176 tons of proven coal reserves and 3.85 barrels of oil per head, to China's 1,168 tons of coal and 20 barrels of oil per head.

Otherwise, China and India, with close to two-thirds of the developing peoples between them, face much the same problem. The entire third world uses just 8 percent of the world's oil supply. Much of this goes to small, urban, industrialized minorities.

Peasants make up 80 percent of both Chinese and Indians. These still use much the same resources as all men did 200 or even 2,000 years ago: animal power, wind, water, sun, firewood, and forage. Even the post-1967 shift to high-yield wheat, rice, and corn has taken relatively little commercial energy. Agriculture typically accounts for about 5 percent of a developing country's energy consumption, though in India it has reached 11 percent.

The common task China and India face is how to apply modern technology to these traditional resources. Here is a sample of some of the things going on:

Animal power: China and India both plan to expand their numbers of draft animals. India already has the world's biggest population of livestock, 1 for every 21/2 people. Animals such as buffalo, horses, and camels produce 203 million tons of fertilizer a year; the Indians claim only 40 million tons are burned as cooking fuel.

If one counts pigs, which Mao Tse-tung described as ''a fertilizer factory with four legs,'' China has about as much total livestock, but only 50 million draft animals. Chinese sailing junks also do some of the work of India's 15 million bullock carts.

Water: Probably hydropower is the best bet to diversify energy. Asia uses only 9 percent of its hydropower potential, Latin America 8 percent, and Africa 5 percent. China exploits only 3 percent of a 370,000-megawatt potential and India 11 percent of a potential 75,400 megawatts, not counting 83,000 megawatts from Nepal's Himalayan runoff.

China plans by far the world's most ambitious hydroelectric power station for its Yangtze Gorge, with a target of 25,000 megawatts. Eighteen large stations supply 40 percent of China's hydropower, much of the rest coming from 90,000 small micro-hydro units (average size: 70 kilowatts) installed in 1,500 of China's 2,000 counties over the past 20 years.

China's main problem is that 70 percent of its hydropower potential lies in its far west, thousands of miles from coastal markets. India's Himalayan potential is closer.

Sun: India, with its large pool of scientists, has pilot demonstrations of solar water heaters, driers, and kilns; solar refrigeration and distillation; and photovaltaic systems for pumping and lighting. It expects to install several thousand solar pumps by the mid-1980s, after testing 70, many in villages, this year.

Pakistan is experimenting with solar-powered pumps, lights, and TV sets in six villages. A United Nations-financed village project in Sri Lanka runs a 90 -kw. generator on solar cells, four windmills, and two biogas engines.

These modest South Asian efforts do not compare with what the French government and commercial companies have done in West Africa. There, thousands of solar TVs have been set up in villages, along with small power units, telecommunications systems, pumps, and medical refrigeration.

China came late into solar research, in the mid-1970s. It already has about 100,000 square meters of solar collectors to heat water, plus about 6,000 hectares (about 15,000 acres) of plastic greenhouses.

Solar Cooking devices, with broad, parabolic dishes, tend to be awkward to use and blow over in the wind. They can also give the cook nasty burns and work best in mid-day. Yet 2,000 are already in daily use in China where it is claimed ''they are highly appreciated by the peasants.''

The future of solar energy in villages probably depends on whether the Americans, French, West Germans, and Japanese, who are doing the most research, can bring down the cost of photovoltaic cells. The price of a solar cell has already dropped from $3,000 or $4,000 per peak watt to less than $12. The US Department of Energy, before the Reagan budget cuts, had aimed to get the cost down to 15 cents by 1990. Now Japan may do it instead. But at present a $1,500 diesel generator can produce the kilowatt it takes a $20,000-to-$30,000 series of solar panels to do.

Firewood: The Chinese officially admit firewood is in short supply three months each year. In rural India, women and children are walking farther and carrying heavier loads home.

Planting trees is harder than it sounds.

With 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of forest being lost each year, something has to be done. Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug has urged Mrs. Gandhi to mobilize the Indian Army to plant more trees; Pakistan could do the same.

The Chinese, much better at reforestation, estimate 90 percent of most cooking fire is wasted. So they are designing more efficient wood- and charcoal-burning stoves.

Prof. Amulya Reddy of the Indian Institute of Science says that if all India's 160 million households were supplied with electricity and biogas plants, the kerosene and diesel fuel saved would cut India's oil bill in half and reduce pressure on firewood.

Biogas: China, India, and Pakistan have the only big programs to promote biogas plants, which turn animal and crop wastes into methane for cooking fuel and fertilizer. Nearly 200,000 have been installed, chiefly by richer farmers, on the Punjab plain, divided between India and Pakistan. China has 7 million biogas digesters in use, almost all in Sichuan Province. They have not yet been widely accepted in China. Even those in Sichuan are being redesigned.

Electrification: China has tried to put a small power unit in every village. India is catching up. About 250,000 villages are now electrified and 100,000 more are planned to be by 1985. About one-fourth of India's total of 31,000 megawatts of electricity generation now goes to agriculture.

Only 29 percent of Pakistan's villages get electricity, 8 percent in Sri Lanka, 7 percent in Indonesia. But there is a growing awareness that a big step is crossed in a village when there are a few kilowatts of power. Water can be pumped and purified, fields irrigated, grain milled, workshop machinery run, homes and schools lighted, TV shown, and emergency help summoned by telephone. A minimum of power saves kerosene and diesel oil and makes urban migration less appealing.

It's worthwhile remembering that the United States, today's super oil-consumer (40 percent of it imported), got 90 percent of its energy from firewood in 1850, just as Nepal does today. By the early 1900s, 75 percent of his energy came from coal, just as 70 percent of China's does today.

We have descriptions of thousands of horses pulling carts around the streets of Washington, D.C., as late as 1932. Few American farms had electricity or plumbing before the mid-1930s. This reporter remembers using windmills, handpumps, and outhouses in the rural Midwest until about 1940.

With cheap oil, American farming went whoosh! The biggest gains came from advances in output per worker spurred by mechanical technology - tractors, combines, and other machinery. One result: Today just 3 to 4 percent of Americans feed the rest.

The number of American farm families dropped from 6.8 million in 1935 to 2.7 million last year. Imagine an equal drop among the 80 percent of a billion Chinese who live in 750,000 villages or the 80 percent of 690 million Indians who live in 570,000 villages.

Fortunately, new biotechnology has allowed Asia's biggest production gains to come in ouput per unit of land from improved plants, fertilization, and water use.

What is missing now is some sort of system of international research centers under which the Chinese, Indians, Africans, and everybody else could pool knowledge and exchange new findings on how best to use the age-old, non-oil, village energy resources of animal power, wind, water, sun, firewood, and forage.

During the 1970s such a global scientific network was established for agriculture; 13 research centers, eight of them set up since 1971, now train scientists and technicians from 130 countries in the latest knowledge in crops, livestock production, and farming systems. The total 1980 budget was $145 million.

Also needed is the application of modern science to develop man's oldest sources of energy.

A start was made when energy officials, scientists, and technicians from 125 countries gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, for two weeks in August for a UN conference on new and renewable energy sources. China, India, and a good many other developing countries proposed setting up ''research and training centers on energy.''

The idea was torpedoed, as was a proposed World Bank energy affiliate, by the US. The Reagan administration took the position that oil companies should play the leading role in developing the poor world's energy resources.

This is no solution. Though several have invested heavily in solar research, the big multinationals are primarily interested in oil, natural gas, and coal exploration. Helping villagers with micro-hydro units, biogas plants, windmills, tree plantations, cheap solar cells, and the rest is not high priority to big-time commercial finance.

The UN's proposals were shelved until the General Assembly meets a year from now. For the present, at least, the opportunity for sharing the best ideas to better tap energy resources in some 2 million villages has been lost.

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